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You know, to be frank, I don't know how much cholesterol levels matter when it comes to heart health. (And neither does anyone else, really.)
Even when you combine cholesterol with all other known cardiac boogiemen like bad fats, smoking, high blood pressure, inflammation, and diabetes, they only explain maybe half the risk of developing atherosclerosis.
Even so, it's a pretty safe bet that your general practitioner is going to focus on your cholesterol levels because it consists of easily measurable and tracked numbers. Doctors have been given guidelines regarding what that number, or rather what that range of numbers, should be.
Never mind that a group of cardiologists meet every few years to change those numbers, continually moving the goal post, seemingly arbitrarily, to levels that would be impossible for anyone who ate a diet consisting of anything outside of kale and mashed yeast to achieve.
And it's even worse now that they've got a new test to tinker with, one that determines if LDL is "fluffy" or if your HDL is "dense," the former being desirable and the latter being worrisome.
Unfortunately, the majority of men over 30 or 40 will often exhibit cholesterol levels outside the "normal" range. Still, I think "ideal" cholesterol is the medical profession's version of the Kobayashi Maru, the "no-win" scenario used by the Starfleet Academy to weed out cadets who weren't suitable for command.
Your cholesterol levels will likely never meet the grade consistently (partially, too, because two cholesterol tests, submitted to two different labs or even the same lab on the same day, can sometimes vary by up to 15%). You'll be told to modify your diet – even though diet likely doesn't even play that big a role in cholesterol levels. And you'll also quite likely be prescribed a statin, which may or may not give you non-CrossFit induced rhabdomyolysis.
The stress of it all is enough to give you a heart attack, which is all kinds of ironic.
A Painless Fix
I begrudgingly admit that we should probably pay attention to cholesterol levels and strive to keep them somewhat close to American Heart Association-approved levels. One of the easiest ways to do that is through the soluble fiber, psyllium.
Psyllium reduces cholesterol by trapping bile, a substance secreted by the liver to emulsify fat particles so that enzymes can more easily process them.
This is pretty cool because bile is usually recycled several times in a single meal, but when the bile is trapped by psyllium fiber and eliminated in the stool, the liver has to produce more bile. Cholesterol, however, is a bile component, so by forcing the liver to make more bile, a de facto reduction of cholesterol occurs. LDL cholesterol goes down without affecting HDL cholesterol.
Studies show that taking just 7 to 10.2 grams of psyllium a day can reduce serum total cholesterol from 4 to 11% and reduce serum LDL cholesterol from 6 to 18%. That's potentially huge because every 1% reduction in serum total cholesterol has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiac heart disease by 2-3%.
If you want to give psyllium a go to control your cholesterol, and stop the doctor from nagging you, consume one to three 5mg. servings of psyllium a day. Just mix a serving in 4 to 8 ounces of water and drink it up about a half-hour before meals.
While there are plenty of inexpensive, unflavored psyllium brands available at granola-cruncher stores, I like orange-flavored, sugar-free Metamucil because it's tasty.
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- James W. Anderson, et al. "Long-term cholesterol-lowering effects of psyllium as an adjunct to diet therapy in the treatment of hypercholesterolemia," The Journal of Nutrition, 01 June 2000.